Betty Ekern Suiter




Betty Ekern Suiter




Betty Ekern Suiter


Le Rowell

Interview Date


Interview sponsor

The National Quilting Association


Houston, Texas


Le Rowell


Eva Knight (EK): Third [EK began speaking before tape was ready to record; full date not on tape but the date is October 23.] 1999. We are in Houston, Texas at the International Quilt Exhibit with Betty Ekern Suiter of Racine, Wisconsin. Betty has a quilt in the "One Hundred Best Quilts of the 20th Century." [special exhibit.] The quilt is entitled "Floral Symphony," and we're now going to be talking with Betty about her quilt. Tell me about the quilt you brought today.

Betty Ekern Suiter (BES): The design came from a rug by Asmara called "Arras," I wrote and asked for permission to use the design. I had only a small photograph so I drew it up full size to make the pattern and I changed all the flowers. The colors are all different. I hand dyed all the fabrics that are in the appliqué itself, and the prints are a border print, it's an old one of Jinny Beyer's that I used for the ends and the sides and a companion border was used for the binding. The curved elements of the side where I used the Jinny Beyer print, I had to make darts in the center of each of the design elements to make the curve, which is probably the hardest part of the quilt--to try to make that curve look like it just happened because it was a straight piece of fabric.

EK: It's beautiful. What meaning does this quilt have in your life?

BES: This quilt is an artistic expression. The gracefulness of the flow of the flowers and the greens are reminiscent of a symphony, and because of the flowers. I decided "Floral Symphony" was the best name.

EK: What are your plans for this quilt?

BES: It will be a family heirloom, but I will be entering it in competitions for the next couple of years.

EK: Can you tell me about the competitions that it's been in?

BES: The first show was a year ago in '98 in Houston at the International Quilt Festival and it got first place. It was in Paducah, Kentucky at the American Quilters Society and got first place. Minnesota Quilters was best of show, Quilters Heritage Celebration in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, was best of show. At the NQA [National Quilting Association, Inc.] show in Omaha, Nebraska, it got first place and best of show and best hand workmanship. There were some smaller shows that it got best of show in but these were the big shows.

EK: But how did your quilting get to the point that you have been able to make such a beautiful quilt?

BES: I started out twenty years ago and no one in my family had quilted. Prior to that I was teaching sewing in a technical college in Racine and they asked me to teach quilting, and I said, 'I don't know how.' So then I started with a quilt top my mother had given me of grandmother's, and I took it apart and made it into a big quilt, 110 by 130, for my first piece and I didn't know how to quilt. But after I got that one finished, I was hooked on quilting. And in 1988 I designed my first appliqué quilt and entered it in the NQA show and got best of show. I entered it the next year for master judging. It had to be an outstanding design and nearly perfect in workmanship and it was selected for one of the master quilts. I'm the ninth master quilter, and today there are fifteen.

EK: What is your first memory of a quilt?

BES: The only quilts in my childhood were utilitarian, which is just pieced fabric on the top and the back with batting in between and tied. I guess my first memories are the quilts I've made myself. With this quilt I've gotten my quilting stitches down to sixteen stitches to the inch on the top surface. And when I do the needle turned appliqué, I use thirty-two stitches to the inch to hold my appliqués down. Because if the appliqués are secured to the fabric, when it comes to quilting you don't have any of the bubbles along the edge where you wished you'd stitched a little closer. They work better that way. And when I appliqué, it is all needle turned and I have my color palette selected; but I never predetermine the color placement. I pick the colors as I go along.

EK: Do you consider your quilting more an art or a craft?

BES: An art. I think it's a God given talent. And I always hand dye my fabrics. Once I started working with appliquéd flowers. I like the way the flowers turn out when I use hand dyed fabrics so I get all my shading. There are no prints in my flowers.

EK: What do you find pleasing about your quilting?

BES: Everything. I enjoy it. I quilt around every element of the appliqué, and for Floral Symphony it took a year to quilt around everything.

EK: How much, how often do you quilt?

BES: Eight hours a day. That's my job. Might as well enjoy my work, right?

EK: Right. Are there aspects of quilting that you don't really care for?

BES: No, I like it all. I, it takes so long to do the appliqué that by the time I'm finished with the appliqué I'm ready to go on with the quilting. And on this quilt it took three years, I was getting anxious to finish it. But, I enjoy it.

EK: What do you think makes a quilt great?

BES: Making it by hand. There are still some of us diehard hand quilters and hand appliquérs left. I'm one of them.

EK: What do you think makes a quilt artistically powerful?

BES: Color and design.

EK: What do you think it takes to be a great quilter?

BES: A lot of patience and you also have to have an eye for color. Because if the colors aren't pleasing to the eye no matter how well they're executed, you aren't going to turn around and look at that quilt another time.

EK: How do great quilters learn the art of quilting, especially when it comes to fabric and color?

BES: I think it's just something you have or you don't. I have a friend that does absolutely exquisite work but the colors aren't pleasing to my eye, and the workmanship is beautiful. Color is very important, and I don't really seem to have a problem with color although I do have a problem with trying to get away from blue. I like blue and everything I do seems to have blue in it.

EK: Why is quilting important in your life?

BES: It's an expression of art and creativity and something that I can do that isn't physically taxing. I just really enjoy every part of it.

EK: In what way do you think that your quilts reflect where you live?

BES: I don't know that they reflect any certain area. Mine are pretty--they're just flowers. [laughs.] I like flowers.

EK: What do you think about the importance of quilts in American life?

BES: They started out being a cover to sleep under, and I think more often now they're used as a design. And everybody that comes into a house that has quilts, I think has a warm feeling about it because they're inviting.

EK: How do you use quilts in your home?

BES: I'll put the pretty ones on the bed if we're having company but I don't sleep under them. My husband has built a quilt rack that hangs above a love seat that the quilt can be hung out pretty big on. Then I have quilt racks that stand on the floor that I hang quilts on, and I have others on the walls. And they're always the topic of conversation.

EK: What do your friends and family think about your quilting?

BES: They're usually amazed at what I come up with. Many of them they don't have the patience so they can't understand how I can work on this one project for years. But my goal is to end up with a masterpiece rather than a quick quilt. So nothing I do is quick.

EK: How many quilts have you made?

BES: I'm making the forty-ninth one. They aren't all of this quality, but I probably have four of them that are what I would consider high quality quilts.

EK: Where do you store them? Or do you give them away?

BES: I give them away to family members. I've given away a lot of them, and I have a closet with staggered closet poles that the quilts can be hung over so they aren't stacked one upon the other. And I have a few in a cedar chest which I know isn't the best place to keep them, but my dad made the cedar chest.

EK: What do you think quilting has taught you about life?

BES: Patience. I have started noticing every aspect of design, a lot of it in architecture. When we're driving along I see all the designs in the buildings, and other people don't seem to, those things don't catch their eye. But for me it's another source of design, and the shading and coloring of flowers. It's incredible the colors that are in flowers. The flowers that I put in my quilt are not a particular flower; they're just something I draw up. It's a flower, it doesn't have a name but it's a flower.

EK: How has quilting shaped your social life?

BES: My friends tend to be quilting people I belong to a lot of quilting organizations, and in Racine we have a group that has about a hundred and thirty members that I've been in for fifteen years, and most of my closest friends are people from that quilting group. We all have the same interests, and it seems that even if I go to a convention or some place without someone else and everywhere you turn you have so much in common and that the quilters are all such friendly people.

EK: Have you ever made a quilt to mark a special occasion?

BES: Yes, I've made quilts for my son's weddings, and for the birth of our grandchildren. I made baby quilts for each of them that were to be hung on the wall and saved as an heirloom for the child and they have all respected that and hung them on the wall. And I made what I call slobber quilts for them to do what they want with. But even these small children realize that that quilt is something special from grandma.

EK: What's the best quilt story that you think you've ever heard?

BES: I don't know. I enjoy this book the--has been published out about the hundred best quilts. I enjoy reading about all these quilts. And I was rather interested in seeing where mine fit in; the quilts of the thirties is the style of appliqué that I seem to be doing, although I didn't realize it when I was doing it until I see these other and that's about where I fall in, sixty years late.

EK: What do you think about some of the trends in quilting today? Maybe you would first like to identify what you see as the trend?

BES: The trend I see is fast, make them by machine, quilt them by machine and see how many you can make in a year. That isn't my goal, machine quilting is an art in itself and I see a lot of beautiful things that are skillfully done that I can't do because I've never acquired the skill, but I just prefer the hand made quilts. To me a real quilt is a quilt made by hand.

EK: Here we are at the turn of the millennium. A hundred years from now what advice would you like to give to a young quilter, what do you wish you could tell her?

BES: Keep making them by hand. I have two granddaughters that are quite interested in quilting, one's eleven and one's six, but they are really interested in quilting. And I think I have some perspective followers from them which is encouraging to me because I only had sons. And now I have some girls to teach that are really enjoying it.

EK: What are the best quilting hints that you would like to pass along? Any practical advice?

BES: Where the needle touches my finger I use a quarter inch masking tape and cut a little oval piece to put on my finger. When it wears out, take it off, and put on another one. But you can feel through a layer of masking tape, and it's real cheap. I used to go around to all the vendors and see all these gimmicks to protect the finger you aren't using the thimble on. Masking tape works just fine.

EK: I'm thrilled with that bit of advice. What other hints do you have? This is pretty good.

BES: I made a sleeve for my hoop, so when I'm working on the edge I can pin the edge of my quilt to the sleeve and then I'm not pulling to stretch the edge to get it tight on the hoop because I have it pinned to this muslin sleeve. And it works out good so you don't have to stretch the quilt. I tried using the Q-snap frames, but I really distorted the edge of my quilt when I did that.

EK: I'm glad for all of these. Well, we're getting close to the end of the tape. Anything else that you would like to record about your thoughts about yourself as a quilter?

BES: Well, I think I'm just a plain simple person that likes to make pretty quilts by hand. I hope people can enjoy them for years to come.

EK: It's been a pleasure to interview you. Again this is Eva Knight. I'm interviewing

Betty Ekern Suiter at the Houston International Quilt Festival on October 23, 1999. And I thank you so much for your time and participation in the SOS project.

BES: You're welcome.

EK: We just checked the tape, and we find we have more time. And I said to Betty, 'Is there anything else you would like to say?' And she said, 'Okay.' So we're going to continue here. [short pause.] Any topic on your mind?

BES: I would encourage people to enter quilt shows where there are critique sheets given; and if they would take the critique as a helpful hint and not as criticism, that they can gain a lot of knowledge and get a personal evaluation of their work. When I started out quilting, I did not win ribbons because my quilts weren't good enough, but I kept entering shows where they would give critiques; and when they would tell me what to do to make my quilt better, I would do it. I'd put it in another show and they'd find something else I needed to do so I'd do that and finally I started winning. But if people would be brave enough to stick their neck out and take the chance, I think they would be benefit from it.

EK: Tell me about where you quilt.

BES: In my basement. We live in Racine which is on Lake Michigan and someone said you must get your inspiration with a view overlooking this wonderful lake, and I said, 'Well, actually I sit in my basement.' But I don't have the distractions. I like my area. It's comfortable and that's where I enjoy working.

EK: So many quilters enjoy collecting fabric.

BES: I don't have very much fabric because mostly what I do is hand dye. So for each quilt I'll dye the fabric.

EK: Tell me about the process you use for dyeing. What do you use for dyes?

BES: It's the procion fiber reactive dyes and the actual dyeing part I can't say that I enjoy, but I like the fabrics when I'm finished. It's a long process and it's messy, but I get the colors I want. Even if I were to try to buy my colors, I look at what the vendors have and they never have the soft colors that I like working in, and they're a lot more expensive to buy so struggle through it myself and do it my own way. I took a class from Jan Myers, oh, it must have been about '88 and she taught me how to dye. And I have really benefited from her teaching. I'm a self-taught quilter. I quilted for many years before I realized that there were classes available.

EK: Tell me how you learned to sew.

BES: I don't even remember. I started sewing doll clothes and then started sewing clothes for myself on my mother's treadle sewing machine. And I sewed for my sister. But I've always liked doing something with a needle. When I was in fifth grade our teacher had us do embroidery on huck toweling, and I think that's the one person that I remember being most influential in my stitching.

EK: Do you remember her name?

BES: Unfortunately I can't remember her name; we were living in Springfield, Missouri, but I liked the needlework, I've taught my grandchildren to do different kinds of needlework. And they like that.

EK: You say different kinds. Would you like to tell us more about what kinds?

BES: They've done the huck embroidery, cross stitch, machine quilting and little craft projects. When they come they want to take something home that they've made and it always involves a needle.

EK: Tell me about your memories of a treadle sewing machine.

BES: I thought it worked pretty good. The only thing that I saw as a disadvantage was that I had to tie knots with my fingers because you can't back stitch on a treadle. But I was able to sew what I wanted. It worked fine. I didn't know any better at the time.

EK: What kind of equipment do you use today?

BES: I have a [Janome.] New Home Memory Craft 8000, the computerized machine. It's nice but mostly what I do is by hand. I use Piecemaker needles for my appliqué, and for the quilting I use a number twelve. And cotton thread. I like to work with cotton batting. Everything in my quilt is cotton--fabrics, batting, thread.

EK: But knowing that you're not into speed, do you use scissors or do you use the new rotary cutters?

BES: My appliqué quilts are all cut out with a little orange embroidery scissors. No speed there. If I'm doing something like the binding, I might use the rotary cutter although on this one I didn't because the binding was a striped fabric and I had to cut, right on the line perfectly. I didn't chance using a rotary cutter for that. So this one I can say there was no rotary cutting used.

EK: Do you ever think of yourself as connected to quilters through history?

BES: Yes, I think if the quilts could talk, they would have a lot to say. Because then I look back on some of these quilts with the covered wagons and the pioneers; these women had so much to do, I was just amazed that they could come out with these beautiful quilts because even though they had the desire and the dreams, they had to have had very little time and very poor lighting. So I appreciate the quilts that are old.

EK: If they told you a story, what do you think they would say?

BES: Perhaps it was the highlight of their day working with the fabric and being able to make something beautiful, which is much the way that I feel. I'm being creative and I'm coming out with something that gives me pleasure and others pleasure, yet I'm doing it all on my own in my basement.

EK: You say that when you saw the quilts of the 1930's you felt the connection with those which is, tell us why.

BES: They are heavily appliquéd and the colors are soft, and the quilting is similar to what I do. It's all hand made--there is so much appliqué. I could identify when I went through this exhibit with the quilts of the 30's as being my choice as to the era I would like to follow. And although I didn't know it when I was designing this quilt, that's where I seem to fit in.

EK: When you look at quilts that are made today, there are some beautiful examples here, how do you react to those?

BES: I appreciate the artistic endeavors that they have pursued, and I think they're wonderful, but they aren't something that I personally would like to do. And I found that working with colors that I don't like is like listening to music I can't stand. I made a baby quilt that was white background with primary colors but very little color on it, and I had a terrible time working with that quilt and I'm glad I learned this on a small project instead of picking something big. My daughter-in-law picked out the colors so I wanted to make it fit in with the nursery. That was a labor of love because it wasn't fun. I made another one like it in the soft colors and that one I loved. So it's just the effect color has on me.

EK: What are your favorite colors?

BES: Pink and blue. Most of my quilts have blue in them, although the one I'm working on now I didn't use any blue. And I really struggle picking my colors but I'm comfortable working with them. So I guess I can work other than blue as long as they're soft.

EK: A woman just walked by here right behind you, pointed with her finger, extending out her whole arm and said, 'That's beautiful.'

BES: To that I would respond, 'Thank you.'

EK: What is the most unusual reaction do you think you've ever had to your quilting?

BES: A few people have said, 'You're nuts,' because they just can't imagine spending the length of time on it that I do, and I also work on one project at a time.

EK: That is so unusual today. How do your friends react to your ability to work on just one project at a time?

BES: They don't understand. My quilts take such a long time that if I were jumping around from project to project, I'd never finish it. So I'd just rather work on one and stick it out to the end. My quilts take such a long time and I make them for competition.

EK: So you are specifically thinking competition as you plan a quilt?

BES: And as I stitch it.

EK: What kinds of quilts do you imagine you will be making into the new millennium?

BES: I don't expect to change my style at all.

EK: Good for you.

BES: They'll be by hand and they'll more than likely be appliqué.

EK: What source of inspiration are you using?

BES: Generally rugs and I have for ten years. They just seem to appeal to me. I like the combination of architecture and flowers which is the Aubusson era of rugs that are from France.

EK: You've mentioned architecture now. What kind of architecture do you favor?

BES: I don't know the era, but I like the swirly designs, some times I can look at architecture just see a quilt. But it's not any straight line architecture, it's usually curved. I go to the library and look at books, look at buildings, anywhere I can find ideas.

EK: What kinds of techniques do you incorporate into your quilts?

BES: The appliqué is all needle turned, and I do the hand trapunto. And that I do putting a piece of voile on the back side of the top of the surface fabric the design is drawn on the voile, baste quilt the design from the back side and then I do the trapunto through the voile; and when I quilt the layers together to make the quilt, I quilt from the top side on those basting lines and take the basting out with my tweezers when I'm finished. I do not put any marks on the top surface of my quilt. That's the first thing the judge looks for when they start inspecting a quilt. There are no marks on my quilts.

EK: Would you like to give us a clue as to how then do such beautiful straight work?

BES: I use tape. And if there is some place where I really have to mark on the top surface, I'll use a Hera marker.

EK: A Hera marker marks by impression?

BES: It marks with a crease.

EK: I thought I would say that for the benefit of the transcriber.

BES: It's spelled h-e-r-a.

EK: Would you describe some of your other quilts? They aren't here. Do you, I

suppose the questions that come to mind, what size do you like to work in?

BES: They're all large quilts. There is another one here in Jinny Beyers "Traditions and Transition," part of the Silver Star Salute and she asked for "Aubusson Jarden Partieré," "garden of flowers" is the translation of that one. And it's another one that is hand dyed fabrics and appliqué, trapunto, hand quilted. That one was my first quilt where I tried dyeing a large piece of fabric. I dyed five yards of burgundy to get the top surface, and I was successful. I don't know if I could it a second time, but I did it once. But this is where my groove is; in these type of appliqué quilts.

EK: How do you come up with the name for your quilt?

BES: My brother-in-law, James Galbraith, likes to name my quilts and he is an architect. He's working on the name for the quilt I'm working on now.

EK: Now what are you working on now?

BES: Just another appliqué, but it's a totally original design. And I think it looks considerably different than what I've been doing although it is still appliqué.

EK: What was the inspiration for it?

BES: I went to the library and looked at books of carpets and architecture and came up with my own design. I go to the newspaper and get their end rolls of paper so I get a big piece of paper, I draw the design out full size, usually a quarter of the quilt; when I get it designed with pencil the way I like it, I go over the pencil with a black marker and then take the back side of it and use two inch scotch tape and tape the whole back of it because that's really very poor quality paper and it will rip. I use a light box. So I put my fabric over the paper pattern that I've made to get my design with the flowers I'm appliquéing. For placement of the quilt on the backing, I again put the paper on the light box with my quilt surface fabric pinned to it to find the placement for my appliqués so there is no marking. It's all done with the light box. That's my number one goal when I make a quilt, no marks. I'll take a needle and thread and baste a center line with white thread down the length and width of my quilt and that's how I have placement on the paper pattern that also has it. I was a draftsman for seven years, minor detail.

EK: Okay, if the interview goes on long enough we start learning secrets of this. Tell me about your education.

BES: I got a diploma in mechanical design. And there's a lot of similarities between quilting and working with metals. They have to fit. It works.

EK: And you taught for a period in your life?

BES: I was teaching sewing as a master tradesman and that was when they asked me to teach quilting and I had no interest in it.

EK: So you didn't teach the

BES: No, I didn't know how and I didn't want to learn. Three years later I started quilting.

EK: Why did you turn to quilting after having turned your back?

BES: I like to sew and I was finishing up so quickly, it wasn't really time consuming enough, so I decided to try a sewing project that would take longer. And I think I've found it.

EK: Tell me about the clothes that you sewed.

BES: I make wedding dresses from sketches and I made a suit for my dad for father's day.

EK: How do you feel that your background in sewing has influenced your quilt making?

BES: Perhaps because I have always worked with the needle. I consider the needle my paint brush. I can make that needle do anything; I imagine it's from doing the different types of things that I have done all with a needle, and I'm just comfortable working that way.

EK: We're down to two minutes. This time it's for real. Okay, with the two minute warning on, what would you like to add to this tape?

BES: I feel very honored to have my quilt selected one of the top one hundred quilts of the twentieth century, and I feel I'm in very good company; but I don't know that I'm worthy of the company I'm in. But I thank them for the opportunity to be here.

EK: Well, we thank you for the time that you have taken to be part of this tape. So now I'll give this tape the second finale which is to say this is Eva Knight in Houston, Texas with Betty Ekern Suiter, the creator of one of the one hundred best quilts of the century at the Houston International Quilt Convention. Today is October 23, 1999.


“Betty Ekern Suiter,” Quilters' S.O.S. -- Save Our Stories, accessed May 27, 2024,